"# 4. Famine
Other, more serious shortages soon followed. Sugar was one of the first things to become scarce, as well as perishable goods like milk, cream, eggs and fresh meat. In response to such shortages, rationing was introduced in Britain, across most of continental Europe, and even in the United States. Neither were the neutral countries immune to shortages: in Spain, for example, even staple foods such as potatoes and olive oil were tightly rationed, and the huge drop in imported goods forced the people of Switzerland to make do with 28 per cent fewer calories in 1944 than they had before the war.1 Over the course of the next five years eggs were almost universally powdered in order to preserve them, butter was replaced with margarine, milk was reserved for young children, and traditional meats such as lamb, pork or beef became so scarce that people began rearing rabbits in their back gardens and allotments as a substitute. The struggle to stave off famine was every bit as important as the military struggle, and was taken just as seriously.
The first country to topple over the brink was Greece. In the winter of 1941-2, just six months after being invaded by Axis troops, more than 100,000 people starved to death. The coming of war had thrown the country into administrative anarchy and, coupled with restrictions on people’s movement, this had caused a collapse of the food distribution systems. Farmers began to hoard their foodstuffs, inflation spiralled out of control and unemployment soared. There was also a near complete breakdown of law and order. Many historians have blamed the occupying German troops for sparking the famine by requisitioning food stores, but in truth these food stores were often looted by local people, partisans or individual soldiers.2
Regardless of what caused the famine, the results were catastrophic. In Athens and Thessaloniki the mortality rate increased threefold. In some of the islands, such as Mykonos, the death rate was as much as nine times its usual level.3 Of the 410,000 Greek deaths that occurred during the whole of the war, probably 250,000 were due to starvation and related problems.4 The situation became so parlous that in the autumn of 1942 the British took the unprecedented step of raising their blockade to allow ships carrying food through to the country. By agreement between the Germans and the British, relief flowed into Greece throughout the rest of the war, and continued to do so for almost all of the chaotic period that followed liberation at the end of 1944.
The problem was that Germany had her own food problems to worry about. Even before the war the German leadership had believed national food production to be in crisis.11 By the beginning of 1942 grain stocks were all but exhausted, the national swine herd had been reduced by 25 per cent for lack of feed, and rations of both bread and meat had been cut.12 Even the bumper German harvest in 1943 did not stave off crisis, and while rations were raised temporarily, they soon resumed their decline.
To give some idea of the problem Germany faced, one must consider the calorific needs of the population. The average adult requires about 2,500 calories per day to keep themselves healthy, and more if they are doing heavy work. Crucially, this amount cannot be made up of carbohydrates alone if they are to avoid hunger-related illnesses like oedema – it must also contain vitamins supplied by fresh vegetables, proteins and fat. At the beginning of the war German civilians were consuming a healthy average of 2,570 calories per day. This fell to 2,445 the following year, to 2,078 calories in 1943, and to 1,412 calories by the end of the war.13 ‘Hunger knocks on every door,’ wrote one German housewife in February 1945. ‘New ration cards are to last for five weeks instead of four, and no one knows if they will be issued at all. We count out potatoes every day, five small ones each, and bread is becoming more scarce. We are growing thinner and thinner, colder and colder and more and more ravenous.’14
In order to prevent their own people from starving, the Nazis plundered their occupied territories. As early as 1941 they reduced the official ration for ‘normal consumers’ in Norway and Czechoslovakia to around 1,600 calories per day, and in Belgium and France to only 1,300 calories per day.15 The local populations in these countries only prevented themselves from being slowly starved to death by resorting to the black market. The situation in Holland was not substantially different from that in Belgium or France: the main difference was that Holland was not liberated until nine months later. The famine occurred because by that time even the black market had been exhausted, and the Wehrmacht’s scorched earth policy had destroyed more than 20 per cent of the nation’s farmland through flooding. By the end of the war, the official daily food ration in occupied Holland had dropped to just 400 calories – that is, half the amount received by the inmates of the Belsen concentration camp. In Rotterdam, the food ran out altogether.16
One might have expected the food situation in Europe to ease once the war was over, but in many places it actually got worse. In the months immediately following the declaration of peace, the Allies struggled desperately and unsuccessfully to feed Europe’s starving millions. As I have mentioned, the normal daily ration in Germany fell to just over 1,400 calories by the end of the war; by September 1945 this had fallen still further to 1,224 calories in the British zone of Germany, and by the following March it was only 1,014 calories. In the French zone the official ration fell below 1,000 calories at the end of 1945, and stayed there for the next six months.25
Conditions in the rest of Europe were not much better, and in many cases worse. A year after the south of Italy was liberated, and after $100 million of aid had flowed into the country, housewives were still rioting over food prices in Rome, and a ‘hunger march’ was held in December 1944 in protest over shortages.26 At the end of the war, according to an UNRRA report, food riots were continuing throughout the country.27 The official ration in Vienna hovered around 800 calories for most of 1945. In Budapest the ration for December fell to just 556 calories per day.28 People in the former East Prussia resorted to eating dead dogs they found by the roadside.29 In Berlin children were seen gathering grass from the parks to eat, and in Naples all the tropical fish from the aquarium were stolen for food.30 As a consequence of profound and widespread malnutrition there were outbreaks of disease across the continent. Malaria staged a comeback in southern Europe, as did tuberculosis almost everywhere. In Romania cases of pellagra, another disease associated with deprivation, increased by 250 per cent.31
Ray Hunting was an officer with a British army signals unit when he arrived in liberated Italy in the autumn of 1944. He was used to seeing beggars in the Middle East, but he was utterly unprepared for the mobs that crowded round the train in which he was travelling. At one junction he was unable to bear the sound of their wailing any longer, and so he reached into his bags to throw the crowd some of his spare rations. What happened next shocked him to the core.
"It is a cruel error to throw foodstuffs indiscriminately into the midst of hungry people. They turned instantly into a mass of struggling bodies fighting for the falling gifts. Men, brutish in their determination, punched and kicked each other to gain possession of the tins; women tore food from each other’s mouths to push into the hands of children who were in peril of being trampled underfoot in the violence."
As the train finally pulled away from the junction the crowd were still fighting over the few scraps he had thrown them. Hunting continued to watch them from the open window until his thoughts were interrupted by an officer leaning out of the next compartment. ‘What a waste – chucking all that grub away,’ said the officer. ‘Don’t you know that you could have had the best looking woman down there for just a couple of those tins?’32
...Kathryn Hulme, the deputy director of one of Bavaria’s many displaced persons camps, understood this. At the end of 1945 she wrote with great sadness about the scramble for Red Cross packages at the Wildflecken camp:
"It is hard to believe that some shiny little tins of meat paste and sardines could almost start a riot in the camp, that bags of Lipton’s tea and tins of Varrington House coffee and bars of vitaminized chocolate could drive men almost insane with desire. But this is so. This is as much a part of the destruction of Europe as are those gaunt ruins of Frankfurt. Only this is the ruin of the human soul. It is a thousand times more painful to see."33
# 5. Moral Destruction
Lewis and his fellow soldiers followed them inside and made their way to the front of the crowd. He recorded in his diary what he found:
"Here a row of ladies sat at intervals of about a yard with their backs to the wall. These women were dressed in their street clothes, and had the ordinary well-washed respectable shopping and gossiping faces of working-class housewives. By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any one of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile. The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no soliciting, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh. The boldest of the soldiers had pushed themselves, tins in hand, to the front, but now, faced with these matter-of-fact family-providers driven here by empty larders, they seemed to flag. Once again reality had betrayed the dream, and the air fell limp. There was some sheepish laughter, jokes that fell flat, and a visible tendency to slip quietly away. One soldier, a little tipsy, and egged on constantly by his friends, finally put down his tin of rations at a woman’s side, unbuttoned and lowered himself on her. A perfunctory jogging of the haunches began and came quickly to an end. A moment later he was on his feet and buttoning up again. It had been something to get over as soon as possible. He might have been submitting to field punishment rather than the act of love."
Unsurprisingly, Lewis was not tempted to indulge himself, and five minutes later he was on his way again. ‘The tins collected by my fellow travellers were thrown to passers-by who scrambled wildly after them. None of the soldiers travelling on my truck had felt inclined to join actively in the fun.’1
...According to Norman Lewis, such behaviour became increasingly common in the aftermath of southern Italy’s liberation. He records being visited by an Italian prince who wanted to know if his sister might be allowed to work in an army brothel. When Lewis explained that the British army did not have any official brothels the prince and his sister left disappointed. On another occasion, when investigating the serious sexual assault of a young Italian girl, her father tried to press the traumatized girl’s favours upon him. All he expected in return was a good square meal for his daughter.2
Desperation like this was by no means confined to Naples, nor to Italy. A whole generation of young women in Germany learned to think it quite normal to sleep with an Allied soldier in return for a bar of chocolate. In the Dutch town of Heerlen, US rifleman Roscoe Blunt was approached by a young girl who ‘matter-of-factly asked me if I wanted to “ficken” or just “kuszen”. It took me a few moments for my brain to click into gear and realize what she was asking.’ When he asked her age she told him she was twelve.3 In Hungary there were scores of girls as young as thirteen admitted to hospital for venereal disease. In Greece VD was recorded in girls as young as ten.4
Such degradation affected the Daily Express’s war correspondent Alan Moorehead far more than the physical devastation he had seen. When he arrived in Naples in the immediate wake of its liberation he wrote despairingly about how he had seen men, women and children beating each other as they scrambled for handfuls of sweets thrown to them by the arriving soldiers; he had seen pimps and black marketeers offering fake brandy and child prostitutes as young as ten; and boys of six selling obscene postcards, their sisters’ favours, even themselves.
...What in Britain was regarded as an everyday right had become in the rest of Europe an expression of power, so that a British soldier was able to say of the German woman who slept with him, shopped for him and mended his clothes, ‘She was just like my slave.’6
However, it was not only necessity that drove the high rates of theft and looting during and after the war. One of the most important factors in the phenomenon was that the war provided greater opportunities to steal, and also greater temptations. It is far easier to enter a property whose doors and windows have been blown in by bombs than it is to break those doors or windows oneself. And when a property has been abandoned by its owners in a war zone it is easy to convince oneself that the owners are never coming back. The looting of vacant property therefore began long before the war had created any scarcity. In the villages around Warsaw people looted the homes of their neighbours almost as soon as the war began. Andrzej C.’s family, for instance, fled the fighting in September 1939; when they returned a few weeks later they found that even structural parts of their house itself had been dismantled – his parents had to pay their neighbours a series of visits to reclaim their rafters and other bits of their property.10
...In neutral Sweden, for example, 1939 saw a sudden surge in convictions, which remained high for the rest of the war. In Stockholm cases of theft almost quadrupled between 1939 and 1945.11 This is worse even than, say, France, where cases of theft tripled during the war.12 Similarly, in parts of Switzerland, such as the canton of Basle, rates of juvenile delinquency doubled.13
Naples, which after the liberation briefly became the biggest supply port in the world, also became one of the world’s centres of organized theft. ‘Army cigarettes and chocolates were stolen by the hundredweight and resold at fantastic prices,’ wrote Alan Moorehead in 1945. ‘Vehicles were stolen at the rate of something like sixty or seventy a night (not always by the Italians). The looting of especially precious things like tyres became an established business.’15 Makeshift stalls throughout the city openly sold stolen military articles supplied by corrupt officials, mafia gangs, bandits and groups of army deserters who vied with one another to pillage Allied supply trains.16 Gangs of children would jump onto the backs of army lorries to pilfer anything they could snatch – Allied soldiers resorted to chopping at their hands with bayonets to deter them, resulting in a spate of children seeking medical help for severed fingers.17
Postwar Berlin, according to one historian, became the ‘crime capital of the world’. In the aftermath of the war 2,000 people were arrested in the city each month, an increase of 800 per cent on prewar figures. By the beginning of 1946 there was an average of 240 robberies each day, and dozens of organized gangs terrorized the city day and night.18 One Berlin woman recorded in her diary that ‘all notions of ownership have been completely demolished. Everyone steals from everyone else, because everyone has been stolen from.’19 Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, another woman in Berlin, called life there‘a swapping game’, where objects passed from one person to another with no one knowing who the owners were.20
In France, for example, 350,000 fewer animals were delivered for slaughter each year than were officially recorded: these animals ended up on the tables of French people rather than those of the occupier.24 ...Just before the liberation of France, the black market price of butter was five and a half times the official price, and eggs were four times as expensive on the black market.25
In 1946 Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, the former director of UNRRA for western Germany, expressed his fears regarding some of the leaders amongst the Jews who had been freed from concentration camps: ‘[T]hese Jewish leaders are desperate men who will stick at nothing. Practically everything that can happen to a surviving human being has already happened to them and they place no value on human life whatsoever.’31 The same was true of Germany’s slave labourers. According to an UNRRA study into the psychological problems of displaced persons it was quite normal for DPs to exhibit ‘lawless aggressiveness’, along with a host of other psychological problems, including a ‘sense of unworthiness … bitterness and touchiness’. A high proportion of DPs showed signs of extreme cynicism: ‘nothing that is done even by helpful people is regarded as genuine or sincere’.32
These people numbered in their tens of thousands, and were in many ways just as psychologically damaged as their victims. It is important to remember that most of the soldiers who committed atrocities had not been psychopaths, but had started the war as ordinary members of society. According to a psychological study of such individuals, in the beginning most had experienced extreme revulsion at the acts they were required to carry out, and many had found themselves unable to continue with their duties for very long. With experience, however, this revulsion at the taking of human life subsided and was replaced with a perverse delight, even euphoria, at their own breaking of moral codes.34
For some of these people killing became an addiction, and they carried out their atrocities in ever more perverse ways. In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of the women and castrate the men.35 In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims.36 At Chelmno concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees.37 In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half.38 Ukrainian partisans tortured Volhynian Poles to death by hacking them with farm implements.39 In response Polish partisans also tortured Ukrainians. ‘While I never saw one of our men pick up a baby or a small child with the point of a bayonet and toss it onto a fire, I saw the charred corpses of Polish babies who had died that way,’ said one such partisan. ‘If none of our number did that, then it was the only atrocity that we did not commit.’40 Such people were now a part of Europe’s everyday communities.
Some witnesses at the time even suggested that rape was inevitable, given the ferocity of the battles these soldiers found themselves in: ‘What can you do?’ claimed one Russian officer. ‘It’s war; people become brutalized.’44
The worst instances occurred in eastern Europe, in those areas of Silesia and East Prussia where Soviet soldiers first set foot on German soil. But rape was not confined to the areas around where the fighting took place. Far from it – in fact rape increased everywhere during the war, even in areas where there was no fighting. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, sexual crimes, including rape, increased by almost 50 per cent between 1939 and 1945 – a fact which caused huge concern at the time.45
There are no easy explanations for the huge increases in rape that occurred in Europe during the final stages of the war and its aftermath, but there are some definite trends that are common to the whole continent. As always, the problem was far, far worse on the eastern front than it was in the west. While civilian men were occasionally responsible for committing the crime, it was overwhelmingly a military problem: as the Allied armies converged on Germany from every direction, a wave of sexual violence, along with other crimes, accompanied them. Rape tended to be worst where chaotic conditions existed, for example in the aftermath of heavy fighting, or amongst troops with poor discipline. And, importantly, it was incomparably worse in countries that were conquered rather than liberated. This suggests that revenge and a desire to dominate were important factors – indeed, probably the main factors – behind the mass rapes that occurred in 1945.
Studies suggest that wartime rape is particularly brutal, and particularly widespread, where there is a greater cultural divide between the occupying troops and the civilian population, and this theory is certainly borne out by the events of the Second World War.46 French colonial troops in Bavaria were particularly notorious. According to Christabel Bielenberg, an English woman who lived in a village near the Black Forest, Moroccan troops ‘raped up and down our valley’ as soon as they arrived. Later they were replaced with other troops from the Sahara who ‘came at night and surrounded every house in the village and raped every female between 12 and 80’.47 In Tübingen girls as young as twelve and women as old as seventy were raped by Moroccan troops.48 The terror of the women concerned was increased by the foreign appearance of these men, especially after years of racial propaganda by the Nazis.49
This cultural divide was also a factor on the eastern front. The contempt that many German soldiers felt for eastern Untermenschen when they invaded the Soviet Union certainly contributed to the vicious treatment Ukrainian and Russian women received at their hands. Vasily Grossman interviewed one teacher who had been raped by a German officer who threatened to shoot her six-month-old baby.50 Another Russian schoolteacher called Genia Demianova described her gang rape by more than a dozen German soldiers after one of them had lashed her with a horse whip: ‘[T]hey have torn me to pieces,’ she wrote,‘ … I am just a corpse.’51
Many women in the area around Csákvár, just west of Budapest, were raped so violently that their backs broke under the force of the men’s attacks. Alaine Polcz, a twenty-year-old Hungarian from Transylvania, received painful but thankfully impermanent spinal injuries in this way. She was raped repeatedly over a period of several weeks, and frequently lost count of the number of men who attacked her during the course of a night. ‘This had nothing to do with embraces or sex,’ she wrote later. ‘It had nothing to do with anything. It was simply – I just now realize, as I am writing, that the word is accurate: aggression. That is what it was.’ She was also consumed with the knowledge ‘that this was going on throughout the entire country’.53
But it was in Germany that the most widespread cases of rape occurred. In East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania tens of thousands of women were raped and then killed in an orgy of truly medieval violence. Marie Naumann, a young mother from Baerwalde in Pomerania, was raped and then hanged by a mob of soldiers in a hayloft along with her husband, while her children were strangled to death with ropes on the floor beneath her. She was cut down, still alive, by some Polish civilians, who asked her who had done this to her but when she told them it was the Russians they called her a liar and beat her. Unable to bear what had happened she tried to drown herself in a nearby creek, but was unable to complete the job. Soaking wet, she went to an acquaintance’s apartment where she came across another Russian officer who raped her again. Shortly after he left her, four more Soviet soldiers appeared and raped her ‘in an unnatural way’. When they had finished with her they kicked her into unconsciousness. She came to when another pair of soldiers entered the room, ‘but they left me alone as I was more dead than alive’.54
Thousands of similar stories have been gathered by German oral history projects, church archives and also the German government. Soviet sources also back up these claims. Memoirs by Russian officers such as Lev Kopelev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn describe scenes of widespread rape, as do several reports of Soviet excesses made by their secret police force, the NKVD, in 1945.55
The raping continued as the Red Army advanced through Silesia and Pomerania towards Berlin. In a huge number of cases the women were gang raped, often again and again on successive nights. Vasily Grossman interviewed a woman in Schwerin who told him she had ‘already been raped by ten men today’.56 In Berlin, Hannelore Thiele was raped by ‘Seven in a row. Like animals.’57 Another woman in Berlin was caught hiding behind a pile of coal in the cellar of her building: ‘Twenty-three soldiers one after the other,’ she said afterwards. ‘I had to be stitched up in hospital. I never want to have anything to do with any man again.‘58 Karl August Knorr, a German officer in East Prussia, claims to have saved a few dozen women from a villa where ‘on average they had been raped 60 to 70 times a day’.59 And the list goes on.
Accounts of rape in 1945 become truly sickening, as with accounts of other atrocities during the war, because they are so numerous. The stories documented in the Eastern Archives in Koblenz read with the same monotony as the descriptions of Jewish massacres during the Nuremberg trials – it is the endless repetition of horror that becomes most difficult to bear. In parts of central Europe rape was not a collection of isolated incidents, but a mass experience endured by the entire female population. In Vienna 87,000 women were reported by clinics and doctors to have been raped.60 In Berlin it was even worse, and about 110,000 women are thought to have been victims.61 In the east of the country, particularly in those areas near to Soviet barracks, the constant threat of attack continued until the end of 1948.62 In Germany as a whole almost 2 million German women are thought to have been raped in the aftermath of the war.63
Figures for Hungary are harder to find. While the rape of German and Austrian women was meticulously documented after the war, in Hungary the phenomenon was never admitted by the postwar Communist administration. It was not until after 1989 that proper studies could be made, by which time much of the information was difficult to come by. Rough estimates based on hospital records suggest that between 50,000 and 200,000 Hungarian women were raped by Soviet soldiers.64 The figures in western Europe, though much lower, are still significant. The United States Army, for example, stands accused of raping as many as 17,000 civilian women in North Africa and western Europe between 1942 and 1945.65
The consequences of sexual violence and exploitation after the war were huge. Despite the 2 million illegal abortions that were carried out each year in Germany, between 150,000 and 200,000 ‘foreign babies’ were born to German women, some of whom were the result of rape. Many of these children were obliged to suffer the resentment of their mothers for the rest of their lives.66 A high percentage of women became infected with venereal disease – in some areas as many as 60 per cent. This was generally incurable, since the price of a single injection of antibiotics in Germany in August 1945 was two pounds of real coffee.67 Along with such physical problems came the emotional and psychological consequences – not only for those who had suffered directly, but for women as a whole...As a consequence of the various stresses on marital relationships, divorce rates doubled in postwar Germany compared with before the war – as indeed they did across Europe.70
Statements by soldiers at the time betray a belief that they had a right to sex, and would get it by force if necessary: ‘We liberated you, and you refuse us a mere trifle?’ ‘I need a woman! I spilled my blood for this!’ ‘[T]he G. I. and the Tommy have cigarettes and chocolate to give the Frauleins, so they need not rape. The Russian has neither.’72 In an environment where soldiers had unlimited power over women, where there was little threat of punishment, and where all one’s fellow soldiers were indulging in sexual violence, rape became the norm. Thus, for example, when one of Vasily Grossman’s fellow war correspondents raped a Russian girl who had come to their rooms to escape the mobs of drunken soldiers outside it was not because he was a monster, but merely because he was unable to ‘resist the temptation’.73
In Britain the amount of juvenile delinquency went up by almost 40 per cent during the war, especially crimes of breaking and entering, malicious damage and theft (which more than doubled).77 In Germany too, according to figures circulated by Martin Bormann, youth crime had more than doubled between 1937 and 1942, and was still rising in 1943. In some cities, such as Hamburg, juvenile delinquency tripled during the war.78 By the middle of 1945 groups of ‘child gangsters’ were reported in the Soviet zone mugging and sometimes killing people for food and money: the lack of parental supervision, and in some cases the lack of parents altogether, had made them into ‘little savages’.79
It was the German children who caused the most concern. Some people believed that they were innately threatening, simply by virtue of their German blood. In Norway there were massive demands to deport any children who had been fathered by German soldiers, on the grounds that they might grow up to become a Nazi fifth column in years to come. The same eugenic principle that made the Nazis believe they were the master race was now applied to German children to identify them as a future threat.80"